In one of the most significant leads to possible alien life to date, NASA has announced that it has discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a star 40 light years away.
According to the findings which were published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, Astronomers say that the discovery, which is outside of our solar system, is rare because the planets are temperate, meaning that they could have water on their surfaces which potentially supports life.
“This is the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” said Michaël Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium and the study’s lead author.
Michaël Gillon first detected three of the Earth-sized planets in May 2016, using Earth-based telescopes. He and his team went on to study it more closely using NASA’s Spitzer space telescope and discovered an additional four planets in the system.
The seven Earth-sized planets were all found in tight formation around an ultracool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1.
The astronomers’ research suggests that the inner six planets of the seven appear to have Earth-like masses. They are made of rock and have surface temperatures ranging between 0 to 100°C (32 to 212°F) which is life friendly.
“I think we have made a crucial step towards finding if there is life out there,” said Amaury Triaud, one of the study authors and an astronomer at the University of Cambridge.
“I don’t think anytime before we had the right planets to discover and find out if there was (life). Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gasses similar to what we have on Earth, we will know.”
NASA made the announcement in a live press conference at it’s Headquarters in Washington, calling the new discovery a ‘sister solar system’ to our own.
“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“Answering the question ‘are we alone?’ is a top science priority, and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”
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The astronomers are now focusing on finding out whether the planets have atmospheres. If they do, that will be the first hints of life on the surfaces below.
The Hubble telescope could detect methane and water in the alien air, but both can be produced without life. The more complex molecular signatures might be able to be identified with Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch next year.
Other instruments such as the Giant Magellan Telescope, a ground-based observatory due to come on in 2023, can also help in the identification process.
Astronomer Amaury Triaud said they would be able to identify if there is life on the planets ”within a decade”.
Michaël Gillon, however, added that there is only so much that can be done from afar. ”We’ll never be 100% sure until we go there.”